WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has unveiled the second in a series of experimental bandwidth procurement pathfinders that will help inform how the service fulfills its future wideband satellite communications needs.

In a solicitation released June 13, the Air Force requested information on opportunities to procure transponder capacity on a commercial satellite prior to launch, a departure from the way the Defense Department has traditionally bought commercial bandwidth.

The solicitation comes on the heels of the contract award for the first pathfinder, in which the Air Force is leasing Ku-band capacity covering Africa on an aging satellite operated by SES of Luxembourg.

Industry officials have long said the Defense Department’s bandwidth buying practices are inefficient and make it difficult for commercial satellite operators to prepare to meet the future needs of their largest customer.

Traditionally, the Defense Information Systems Agency has procured commercial satellite capacity on behalf of military users. The pathfinders, however, are being led by the Air Force, operator of the Wideband Global Satcom constellation of satellites that provide comparable services.

In a May 21 briefing with reporters, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, then commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, offered a glimpse of the service’s thinking on future wideband needs, saying the pathfinders will factor into any future architecture decisions. Currently the Air Force has 10 X- and Ka-band WGS satellites either in orbit or under contract.

“There are a lot of other possibilities that go into the future of wideband communication for the Department of Defense,” Pawlikowski said. “We have a couple of pathfinders that we’re looking at with the commercial satcom. There is a role for commercial satcom in the future, at least for the foreseeable future. The construct we are looking at for WGS beyond 10 is what’s the best way to leverage that commercial market.”

Roger Krone, president of WGS prime contractor Boeing Network and Space Systems, told reporters May 13 he believes there is enough international appetite for WGS capabilities to support two additional satellites. Two of the WGS satellites were paid for, in whole or in part, by allied governments, including the Australia-funded WGS-6 that launched last August.

The constellation’s seventh satellite, WGS-7, is expected to launch in mid-2015, according to Air Force budget documents. Among the remaining satellites, WGS-9 is being built thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

The Air Force is conducting a study on the future of wideband communications systems that is expected to wrap up in late summer or fall. In public speeches this year, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has repeatedly raised the possibility of offloading the WGS services to commercial providers.

Many in industry believe they can complement the WGS system, especially with Pentagon-certified terminals and the possible introduction of a protected tactical communications waveform, which several companies plan to demonstrate. Satellite operator Intelsat, for example, said in a June 17 post to its company blog that its C- and Ku-band Epic satellites could transmit more information with less bandwidth than WGS.

London-based Inmarsat, meanwhile, is developing an all Ka-band service called Global Xpress that company officials say will be interoperable with WGS.

But Air Force officials say change will have to come in incremental steps, such as the pathfinder demonstrations.

The newly announced second pathfinder is looking at up-front purchases of transponder capacity on commercial satellites to support intelligence and surveillance missions in late fiscal year 2015 or early 2016. The Air Force said in the solicitation that the availability of pre-launch Ku-band transponder capacity is limited in any calendar year and that the service’s long-term needs are focused on Africa, the western Pacific and the United States.

“Industry has indicated that DoD’s pre-launch transponder acquisition presents opportunities for the most affordable, highest performing COMSATCOM product, with improved responsiveness to DoD needs,” the solicitation says.

Responses are due by July 14.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.